BMCR 2010.09.09

Polybius’ Histories. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature

, Polybius' Histories. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xvi, 270. ISBN 9780195310337. $18.95 (pb).


By now, many are familiar with the Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature series, of which this book is the fourth installment ( 2005.04.54; 2005.10.32; 2007.08.03). Aimed at readers who are approaching a given text for the first time, these books are meant to be “essays in criticism and interpretation that will do justice to the subtlety and complexity of the works under discussion” (vi). McGing achieves this goal. He introduces students to Polybius, the features of the work, and the scholarly debate surrounding it while going out of his way to provoke thought and inspire further investigation.

In addition to the goals of the series, McGing sets forth a more particular object. He explains that the Histories has suffered from the perception that it is a difficult work. It is long, and Polybius’s prose has been continually disparaged. To read the complete fragments in English, today’s reader must also contend with W. R. Paton’s “somewhat dated” translation (4).1 Worse still, Polybius inconveniently existed in the Hellenistic age; consequently, his work is hardly Greek history and barely Roman. Scholarly attitudes have changed in the modern era, especially since the appearance of Walbank’s commentary, and McGing intends to advance Polybius’s revival. He begins in the Introduction, where he summarizes Scipio’s capture of New Carthage to argue simply that the narrative is gripping. The thesis expounded in the introduction, that the Histories is “attentive to detail, coherently planned, and constantly varied in treatment and subject matter” (10), is developed throughout the book’s five chapters and epilogue. The supporting materials include two maps, an outline of the work, a glossary of prominent persons, an index, and a bibliography.

Chapter 1, “Contents and Organization of the Work” analyzes Polybius’s concept and design. First, McGing explains the organization of the work and creates two categories, “narrative pause” and “narrative,” to address the primary features of the Histories. The first category of narrative pauses are the programmatic statements. While exploring Polybius’s frequent references to the structure of his work, McGing provides an illustration of the synchronism. From there, he treats the character sketches. He never stops at a barely factual treatment of his topics. He argues, for instance, that there are Homeric elements in the sketches of Achaeus and Cleomenes, and uses the sketches of Philip V of Macedon and Scipio Aemilianus (among others) to dissect the mechanisms through which Polybius intends his work to benefit the reader. The chapter ends with an overview of the narrative structure and contents of the first five books. Here, McGing addresses issues of didacticism, chronology, and method. The reader is invited not simply to learn the features of the Histories, but also to consider the author and his work in the wider context of classical literature. McGing’s ability to provide a thorough and clear introduction while challenging the reader to engage in issues of a grander scale is the work’s most successful quality and features prominently in each of the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2, “The Historian’s Task,” focuses on Polybius’s habit of authorial intervention. The aim is to show that such statements are interesting for their content and because they reveal the author’s literary savvy by parceling the narrative into manageable pieces and actively engaging the reader. McGing begins the chapter by relating the Histories to earlier Greek historiography. He reconsiders the long accepted—and unsatisfying—position that Polybius had no close knowledge of Herodotus. The counterargument he presents, however, lacks depth. He gives short comparisons of Antigonus III’s council (Plb. 5.41-42) with one of Xerxes (Hdt. 7.8-11), of Hannibal’s Rhône crossing with Xerxes’ bridging of the Hellespont, and of both authors’ fascination with the Nile. More attention is given to the possibility that Polybius’s thoughts on τύχη echo those of Herodotus as wells as to their shared interests in art and geography. Any philological evidence is reserved for footnotes that seem out of place in a work that otherwise largely avoids scholarly convention. By the end, McGing stops short of suggesting direct influence and concludes that Polybius is in the same “thought-world” as Herodotus. His argument will not convince scholars, but like the subsequent discussions of Polybius’s relationship to Thucydides and Xenophon, it introduces central elements of the Histories while inviting the reader to consider the work in the context of Greek historiography. The rest of the chapter does the same, presenting an accessible overview of Polybius’s comments about utility, audience, truth, sensationalism, causality, geographical accuracy, autopsy, and speeches that situates these topics in the context of ancient literature.

The section of this chapter entitled “Speeches” (86-91) demands special mention for its uncharacteristically problematic content. McGing argues that Polybius begs forgiveness (at 29.12.10) for using the same style in his reports of speeches, and that his apology amounts to an admission that his speeches are “Polybius’ version” of what was said (87). In fact, it is not clear that Polybius makes such an admission. The sentence McGing cites is marred by a lacuna and other possible corruptions that render it difficult if not impossible to understand. Furthermore, McGing gives no analysis of the speeches to demonstrate precisely how they are similar or how they might differ, so the reader is given no opportunity to test McGing’s conclusions.

Also in this section, McGing addresses Polybius’s criticisms of Callisthenes (Plb. 12.17-22) in order to argue that the historian’s polemic can sometimes be “weak and ineffective.” McGing presents as evidence one quotation from Walbank’s commentary. Of course, part of his mission is to introduce the reader to important scholarship, but inclusion of Eric W. Marsden’s conclusions regarding Polybius’s value as a military historian would have resulted in a more balanced overview.2 Still, it seems the first-time reader would gain the most benefit if such discussions of scholarship were carried out in combination with analysis of the original passages, something that is missing from the entire section.

It is precisely primary analysis that makes Chapter 3, “Art and History: The Narrative of Books 4 and 5” so successful. Here, McGing presents a refreshing and laudatory estimate of the author’s literary craft. He provides an exposition of three narrative threads from the 4th and 5th books of the Histories : the stories of Philip V of Macedon, Ptolemy IV, and Antiochus III. The method of analysis is narratological, stressing the processes of frequency, order, and focalization that Polybius uses to construct a compelling account of the courts of the Hellenistic world. McGing stresses how carefully Polybius develops the theme of causality and how subtly he presents it. The reader learns enough facts about the intrigues of the Hellenistic kings to make the Histories accessible, and McGing’s enthusiasm for Polybius’s ability to construct an effective story is contagious. In addition, students learn some basics of narratology and literary interpretation that will make them more skillful and confident readers of any literary work.

The fourth chapter, “The Historian as Homeric Hero,” examines Polybius’s career, with a particular focus on exploring how the author’s experiences may have shaped his view of decline. The biography is covered in two sections, “Polybius’ Early Life and Career,” covering the period from his birth to the battle of Pydna, and “Exile in Rome,” from Pydna to his death. The subsequent sections consider whether he depicted Rome in decline after 168 BCE and analyze his attitudes towards Roman rule. This approach effectively addresses several questions that might interest and inspire the first-time reader of Polybius. His extraordinary life story and the historical background to the Histories are put to work defining Polybius’s world-view, the narrative, and the challenges of interpreting ancient historiography.

The final chapter, “The Political Theorizing of Book 6” summarizes Polybius’s theory of the Roman constitution, considers its sources, and questions its internal consistency and relationship to reality. After reconstructing the Roman archaeology (one of the gaps in the surviving fragments), McGing assesses the accuracy of Polybius’s discussions of the Roman government and the constitutions to which he compares it. He considers whether Polybius distorts other accounts of constitutional change, for instance Philip V’s and Cleomenes’ transformations from kings to tyrants and Carthage’s descent into mob rule, to support his own views of decline. He concludes that “Polybius is not interested in trying to track down examples of constitutional change to prove his theory” (194). The chapter ends with a brief consideration of why the concept of τύχη is absent from Book Six. Once again, McGing does not stop at a basic summary of the text, but takes pains to show the consistency of Polybius’s thematic and literary concerns while initiating the first-time reader to the challenges of reading fragmentary texts.

In the epilogue, McGing details Polybius’s reception by Cicero, Livy, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Quintilian, Zosimus, Macchiavelli, Montesquieu, and John Adams among others. It comes as no surprise that the focus, especially for Polybius’s modern reception, is primarily on his political theories. After all, these theories provided “the high point of Polybius’ posthumous career” (219). Furthermore, as McGing points out, the Histories are as capable of inspiring developments in political science today as they were when the framers of the American constitution incorporated them into their debates.

Some elements of the book can create the impression that first-time readers of Polybius need coddling. The style, for instance, is consciously informal: the indefinite pronoun “you” appears from time to time, and at one point McGing describes Polybius’s reasoning as “lame” (46). Scholarly convention is assiduously avoided, as though the first-time reader will wither in the face of it. To give one example, McGing explains that Bruttium is in “the ‘toe’ of Italy” instead of including the area on one of the maps and referring the reader there (36). Additionally, there are only a handful of citations, a fact that will render the book less valuable to students who are assigned term papers. Statements like “Polybius’ treatment of causation has not always been regarded as entirely successful” (48) might pique readers’ interests, but it gives them nowhere to go to satisfy their curiosity. The short “Further Reading” suggestions at the end of each chapter can hardly address every issue one might find worth investigation. Taken together, these stylistic and scholarly informalities present Polybius as the medicine that the student cannot swallow without a spoonful of sugar. Consequently, they undermine the great care McGing takes to create a multi-faceted, balanced, and inviting introduction to the work.

Such minor objections aside, McGing’s book provides a thorough and usually thought-provoking introduction to the Histories that should interest and encourage any reader who is approaching Polybius for the first time. Additionally, because this book examines an author who is “not very commonly read on Classics ‘set-book’ courses” (ix), perhaps teachers of courses in classical civilization, ancient historiography, or Greek literature will be inspired to include on their syllabi an author they might otherwise have overlooked.

One typographical error warrants mention: J. M. Alonso-Núñez’s surname appears both in the text (94) and in the bibliography (241) as “Alonzo-Núnez.”


1. The first two volumes of F. W. Walbank and Christian Habicht’s revision of Paton’s translation have since appeared.

2. Marsden, E. W. 1974. “Polybius as a military historian.” In E. Gabba, ed., Polybe (Entretiens Hardt 20), Geneva: 267-301.